Massachusetts Legislators Consider Legislation Regarding ‘Lethal Automatons’

More recently, the potential use of weaponized robots by law enforcement has been a political lightning rod in places like Oakland and San Francisco. Earlier this week, I spoke about the bill with Massachusetts state representative Lindsay Sabadosa, who filed it alongside Massachusetts state senator Michael Moore. Does the bill apply to law enforcement as well? And what we’ve heard from law enforcement repeatedly is that they’re often used to deescalate situations. We haven’t had law enforcement weaponize robots, and no one has said, “We’d like to attach a gun to a robot” from law enforcement in Massachusetts.

A couple of Massachusetts legislators have put forth a proposal in mid-September to promote the safe use of advanced robotic technologies. This bill aims to prohibit the production, sale, and use of weaponized robots.

This idea is quite intriguing for several reasons. One of those is the current lack of laws at both the state and national levels that govern this emerging concern. It has long felt like a subject of science fiction that most lawmakers did not consider approaching in a practical manner.

However, the use of robots in harmful ways is not limited to science fiction and has been a reality for more than two decades now. Let’s face it, the United States has been deploying drones to eliminate people. As grim as it sounds, the public seems to have a different perspective when it comes to the use of these technologies on their own soil.

Nevertheless, the fear of “killer robots” extends far beyond their military applications. While some are reminiscent of popular culture robots like Terminators, I, Robots, and Five Nights at Freddy’s, others are firmly based in reality. Remember when MSCHF attached a paintball gun to a Spot robot to prove a point? How about the images of Ghost Robots equipped with sniper rifles?

Although not a common occurrence, there has been a precedent for law enforcement to use robots to take lives. In 2016, during Independence Day week, the Dallas Police Department killed a suspect by attaching an explosive device to a bomb disposal robot. Regardless of one’s opinion on the wisdom and ethics of this decision, it’s clear that the robot was not carrying out its intended purpose. In fact, it was the complete opposite.

More recently, there has been a heated debate about the potential use of weaponized robots by law enforcement in cities like Oakland and San Francisco. Last October, Boston Dynamics, along with Agility, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, and Open Robotics, signed an open letter denouncing the weaponization of “general purpose” robots.

“We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues. Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.”

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the maker of Spot, the popular robotic dog, played a crucial role in the conception of this new bill. Earlier this week, I had a conversation with Massachusetts State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, who co-filed the bill with Massachusetts State Senator Michael Moore.

What is the current status of the bill?

We’re still in the midst of some technical reviews and discussions with stakeholders. The bill has already undergone a hearing, which is fantastic news. We’re working with the committee to refine the language and address any questions they may have. We’re also making sure that all relevant parties are involved in the discussions.

Who are these stakeholders?

These are companies that manufacture and utilize robotics. For example, Boston Dynamics, with their Spot robot, and other similar companies, have clients such as the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police. These robots may also be used by fire departments. We’re consulting with these stakeholders to go through the bill and discuss any necessary changes. So far, we’ve received feedback that the bill won’t have a significant impact on these stakeholders. The primary purpose is to prevent individuals from weaponizing robots, not restrict legitimate uses of the technology.

Does the bill also apply to law enforcement?

Our aim is not to hinder the use of robots by law enforcement. From our discussions with them, we understand that these technologies are often utilized to de-escalate intense situations. They have mentioned how these robots are helpful in barricade or hostage scenarios. To be frank, sending in officers can often make a situation worse, and robots can prevent that escalation. Our legislation does not affect these uses. However, we do expect law enforcement to obtain warrants before deploying robots in cases where they would typically send in an officer. This is already standard protocol, and we’re just reinforcing that it should be followed, especially if robots are used in place of humans.

Have you been following the news about attempts to weaponize robots in cities like San Francisco and Oakland?

We haven’t had any incidents of law enforcement weaponizing robots, and we have not heard any proposals to do so in Massachusetts. Considering the conversations around this issue, we would expect a strong reaction from local communities if such attempts were made. While our bill does not explicitly ban weaponization, we do not condone it either.

Is there any attempt to get ahead of potential weaponization in the bill?

No, there isn’t. Attaching guns to robots and using them for hunting, for example, is not something we endorse.

Is there opposition to the bill?

So far, we have not encountered any opposition. Stakeholders have raised questions, but the feedback has been mostly positive. Companies have even expressed gratitude for the bill, and we have found common ground with them despite some suggested changes.

What kind of questions are you getting from stakeholders?

One of the most common questions is why this bill is necessary.

You would think that’s something that stakeholders would understand.

Surprisingly, some companies are not clear about the intention behind the bill. They have concerns that it might impact their work negatively or limit their innovations. I believe Boston Dynamics took a proactive approach to get ahead of any potential misuses of their robots, and I agree that it’s a wise move.

How do you respond to concerns about stifling innovation?

We do not believe this bill hinders innovation. On the contrary, we think it supports the robotics industry. By implementing clear guidelines and promoting responsible use, we are creating a safe environment where companies can confidently showcase their innovations. I want to clarify that we are not trying to prevent the use of robots in beneficial ways. We recognize the immense potential of this technology and want to facilitate its growth while preventing any misuse.

Did incidents in cities like San Francisco and Oakland inspire this bill?

Honestly, Boston Dynamics approached us with their concerns, and that’s what initiated the conversations about this bill. I believe their intent to promote responsible use of robots contributed to the success of this bill.

As one of the world’s top robotics hubs, it’s interesting that Massachusetts is among the first states to propose such a bill.

That is precisely why we wanted to be the pioneers in this area. We are hopeful that Massachusetts will also be the first to pass and implement this bill successfully. You asked if this bill stifles innovation. I believe it supports the robotics industry by giving companies a sense of security and transparency. There have been concerns that roboticists are attempting to create robocops, but this is not what the companies are aiming for. They want to build robots for specific and helpful purposes that can save human lives. That is a noble cause, and we stand behind it.

Were the stories from cities like San Francisco and Oakland pivotal in the creation of this bill?

I would say they were influential in raising awareness about this issue. As I mentioned earlier, Boston Dynamics was the driving force behind this bill. We appreciate their proactive approach and willingness to work with us in creating legislation that supports the robotics industry.

This piece originally appeared in TechCrunch’s robotics newsletter, Actuator.

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Zara Khan

Zara Khan is a seasoned investigative journalist with a focus on social justice issues. She has won numerous awards for her groundbreaking reporting and has a reputation for fearlessly exposing wrongdoing.

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